Reggie Watts' genius on full display at Largo
Note to self: it's a good idea as a writer to bring a notebook to a Reggie Watts show, because if not the next two hours with the musician/comedian will be a blur of words, phrases, half-muttered stock exchange updates, award acceptance speeches, rhyming couplets about sending human flesh into space and the troubles that may be encountered once the meat is up there (problems with onboard filtering systems, or something), and impromptu music creations as inspired and fascinating as more "serious" musicians working the clubs on the East Side. And it'll all come at you so quickly that capturing its essence will be impossible.
Watts, born in Germany (his father was in the United States Air Force), is best known to the general public for his appearances on Conan O'Brien and touring as the opener on O'Brien's "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on TV" tour, and one of the most curious and respected comics on the circuit, a performer with a Andy Kaufman's Dada eye and John Coltrane's connection to the improvisational sublime; and yet aside from being a superstar in the insular comedy world, he's much less known to the public at large.
That's probably because capturing in words what he does is nearly impossible without sucking all the life out of it, just as writing that Coltrane played a remarkable tenor solo says nothing about the spirit and genius of the thing.
But: Over the course of the second of two sold out nights at Largo, Watts was in the zone. He began with an earnest, heartfelt award acceptance speech, replete with the occasional wave of recognition to a nonexistent celebrity in the crowd and the nervous nod to the imaginary timekeeper telling him to wind it down. He let loose a long fake analysis of the economy as though he were a CNBC talking head, except that his newscaster tone was delivering a string of gibberish economic signifiers -- analysis of the Nikkea Average, market indexes, price-to-earnings ratios, overseas market reports -- with the utmost seriousness and authority. It quickly evolved into a whipsmart comment on the ease and simplicity of the bartering economy.
He offered a spot-on, half-sung, half-grunted piano ballad that sank into a series of heartfelt falsetto moans, and pushed the crowd into fits of laughter using only his gymnastically expressive eyes. Over the course of the evening he mimicked dozens of different voices, even delivering a wildly inspired, overly pompous Masterpiece Theatre/Shakespearean soliloquy.
The only time he actually told a joke was when he conjured a redneck character and tossed out a bad pun -- then laughed hysterically at it.
Why is this post appearing in a music blog? Because Watts is an accomplished musician, and harnesses his talent to craft funny songs onstage using a sampler, effects pedals, a Nord keyboard, and, most important, his microphone. As he was coming up in Seattle, in fact, he gigged with some of the city's most respected rock, jazz and avant-garde artists, including Eyvand Kang and Wayne Horvitz, and formerly had a hip-hop group called Maktub.
He's a superior beatboxer who would give Rahzel a run for his money; he pressed his mike up to his throat to create a bass drum, popped a snare with his tongue, let out sibilant 16th-note high-hat runs, feeding all these sounds into a sampler/loop pedal to create a backing track over which he then rapped, sang and danced (moving from sexy lady dance with caress-me eyes to robotic b-boy cheerleading routine). It was amazing, and indescribable. With or without a notebook.
No, he didn't do the Radiohead song, but here it is below.
-- Randall Roberts
Update, Aug. 18, 2:45 p.m. The original version of this post incorrectly identified Reggie Watts' place of birth. He was born in Germany, not Seattle. As well, Watts' hip hop group Maktub is no longer together. The text has been adjusted to reflect this.
Photo: Reggie Watts at Largo. Credit: Lincoln Andrew DeFer